Thursday, May 7, 2009

Arson? Cape May,NJ Style- 1878

The ancient Ocean House hotel was located on a precious piece of real estate..only one-half block from the beach and near most of Cape May's best cottages and hotels.
Sometime during the early hours of November 9th, 1878, while the city slept and all of the tourists had left months earlier, one or more arsonists entered the vacant Ocean House which had closed for the season.
The fire was first observed by a workman repairing the roof of the Stockton Hotel at approximately 7 AM. Although he noticed smoke emitting from the roof, no alarm was sounded until a few minutes later when, as the local paper would later report, " a lady standing at the corner of Washington Street was remarked by Colonel Sawyer, a member of city council, to be gazing intently in the direction of the Ocean House."
Shortly after the alarm was sounded, flames burst through the Ocean House roof in half-a-dozen places. A thirty-six mile an hour northwest wind fanned the flames and it soon became apparent that the old hotel was lost.
Excited residents wondered if their inadequate fire department could save the city. The local fire fighting equipment consisted of an antiquated hand engine with fifteen feet of rubber hose, three small chemical trucks and one hook and ladder truck.
I document the fire building by building in my book, The Summer City by the Sea, An Illustrated History of Cape May, NJ ( Rutgers University Press ) and it is one hell of a story.
Calls went out to the large cities of Camden and Philadelphia and their fire fighting equipment was loaded on trains headed for the tiny wooden city.
Historians would later erroneously write that the fire did so much damage because there was not enough water at hand. Not true. There were plenty of artesian wells owned by the hotels and a main city well that was 25 feet in diameter and 30 feet deep and they were all full of water.
The problem? Old rotten hoses and pumps that had been shut down by the hotels for the season. Water, water everywhere and no way to bring it to the fire.

When all was said and done the Philadelphia newspapers declared it was the city of Cape May's Greatest Fire. Thirty -five acres of devastation and ruins. Seven major hotels were lost and more than thirty cottages and bathhouses.

If you were going to rid yourself of an old hotel in need of expenive repairs well starting a fire in November was the perfect time. Owner of the Ocean House, Samuel R. Ludlam, was conveniently seen on the early morning train for Philadelphia the day of the fire and was not aware of it until he reached the trains first stop. Ludlam was dragged before the court but was released due to lack of evidence. Very convenient.

The good loss of life and in the end the conflagration created a thirty-five acre blank canvas for the city - still popular with the public and investors - to be rebuilt as a smaller, scaled-down version of its pre-fire self.
The charming buildings that we love Cape May for today were built around the same period of time due to an immoral owner looking for a way out of his repsonsibilites for an aging, once great hotel. Funny how things work out in the end.

1 comment:

  1. Still happens today! We've had recent episodes in Maine of suspicious fires lit to rid an owner of old structures.